Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I have long been a movie lover. I especially love historical dramas like Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur.  I grew up in a Progressive house where my parents marched me along with thousands of others in 1969 to protest the war in Vietnam.  We marched through the streets of Philadelphia chanting, singing and basically making a ruckus. I was 7. It made an impression.

Later in college I protested the treatment of Nicaragua and El Salvador at the hands of America's reactionary right-wing government lead by Ronald Reagan. As someone who remembers those times well, I find is baffling that anyone would remember him with fondness or affection. He was responsible for so much misery in the world, both overseas and here at home.

But in 1981, Warren Beatty released Reds. The film dramatized the turbulent lives of Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, lovers and radicals who sought to change the world through worker empowerment.  This film was a revelation to me. It awakened me to an important part of American history that was ignored in the textbooks. It taught me about the IWW and the One Big Union.  Big Bill Haywood became my hero. The existence of a group of radical intellectuals who nearly succeeded in changing America's trajectory was fascinating and exciting to me.  I devoured everything I could find about the characters dramatized in the film.

Jack and Louise's circle of friends included such luminaries as playwright and later Nobel laureate Eugene O'Neill, anarchist Emma Goldman and author Max Eastman. Jack, especially, was dedicated to the kind of class struggle that went so horribly wrong in Russia. Jack Reed's life ended in the nascent U.S.S.R. and he is the only American buried in Red Square.

Jack Reed and Louise Bryant in an
undated photograph
This film had a huge influence on me. It showed me that you could fight injustice and oppression, things that life in Ronald Reagan's America swept under the flag to the ironic chorus of "Born in the U.S.A." (my first use of the phrase "It doesn't mean what you think it means!" was with a clot of proto-wingnuts (c.a. 1983) at my college who were staging a counter-protest to our pro-Sandinista rally, waving the American flag and singing the song)  It's hard to remember the tidal wave of conservative thought that washed over America like a tidal-wave of counter-revolution. Everything the progressive movement had worked for for decades was at risk.  From the reforms of FDR that created Social Security to the Great Society of Johnson. Nothing was safe, nobody was safe.

Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton
as Jack Reed and Louise Bryant in Reds
Incidentally, this wave brought with it a now-discredited macroeconomic philosophy known as "supply-side" economics.  In a nutshell, the "supply-side" plan involved providing incentives to the wealthy and the industrialists through tax cuts and give-aways and that this plan would somehow create jobs and productivity for the nation.  Of course this plan ran contrary to every accepted scrap of evidence ever provided in macroeconomic theory and practice, the Republicans were undaunted.  They were undaunted because they had a Plan.  And that Plan drove a massive shift of wealth and income from the bottom 90% of Americans to the top 1% that, for 30 years now, has continued unabated.  I maintain that, aside from social issues like gay marriage and abortion, the division between supply-side and demand-side economics drives the political debate today.  More on this in a future post!

So what does this have to do with Reds? Everything.  It was clear to me from the beginning, as a freshman in college, that what these economic vandals had in mind was no less than the dismantling of the foundations of American democracy and freedom.  They sought to create a permanent underclass akin to feudal serfs or even slaves (albeit "wage slaves").  The IWW, these Reds, wanted to change that. They didn't want America to slip into a feudal system with a tiny ruling oligarchy and a mass of serfs toiling in meaningless jobs, their labor completely alienated. Sometimes you have to break the system to fix it.

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